Down on the corner: Asheville buskers, businesses chime in on sharing public space

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS: With Asheville city officials poised to implement new regulations regarding downtown street performances, members of the busking community, local businesses and city representatives are weighing in on the role buskers play in the city's cultural identity and how to best share increasingly limited space downtown. Photo by Max Hunt

With the summer season fast approaching, downtown Asheville is emerging from its winter slumber. Summer dresses and tattooed limbs, patios brimming with beer and entrees dot the cityscape. Amid the mass of tourists and pleasure seekers, a gloriously strange concoction of musicians, statue-people and street artists congregate along the avenues to entertain passers-by.

These performers, or buskers, have become synonymous with the downtown experience. Yet despite their contributions to the city’s identity and cultural flavor, tensions over noise, etiquette and shared public spaces remain unresolved among the various entities that cohabit downtown.

In response, the city is seeking definition in its relationship with the busking community, and both buskers and businesses are speaking out about the issues that matter to them in hopes of fostering a healthy relationship in an area of the city where space is at a premium.

Tell it on the streets

In Asheville, like many other municipalities, the public’s understanding of buskers has evolved gradually, says Abby Roach, a performer better-known around town as Abby the Spoon Lady and president of the Asheville Buskers Collective.

“People sometimes get a misunderstanding of what exactly busking is,” she says, noting that people from all walks of life, from students to professional musicians, can be found on the street.

TRADITION AND TECHNOLOGY:
BREAKING STEREOTYPES: Central to the question of how to regulate busking, says Abby “The Spoon Lady” Roach, is understanding what busking is and the diversity of street performers. She hopes the city will continue to allow buskers to be a vital part of downtown’s atmosphere. “If they push us to the margins, I wouldn’t be able to afford to live here.” Photo by Max Hunt

As recently as 2014, the city looked into establishing regulations around busking downtown. In response, local buskers formed the Asheville Buskers Collective, an informal group dedicated to advocating for buskers’ rights in Asheville and acting as a liaison among the busking community, local businesses and city officials.

“The Asheville Buskers Collective has organized to try and reshape that conversation, to say it’s not a threat, it’s an asset, just like any downtown resource,” says Andrew Fletcher, a local musician who got his start busking with the Big Nasty Jazz Band several years ago.

While the proposed rules of 2014 haven’t been implemented yet, Asheville’s Public Safety Committee is still considering regulations around certain aspects of busking downtown, including one of the more contentious modern aspects of street performance — amplification.

Free speech and personal preference

Ask nearly any busker about his or her feelings regarding amplification, and you’ll likely receive a two-part answer. Fletcher and Roach both point to court cases throughout the latter half of the 20th century where cities and municipalities have attempted to regulate or ban amplification among street performers, only to be overruled by courts citing the First Amendment.

But while most buskers will speak up in favor of the right to use amplification, personal preferences often diverge as to when it’s necessary and appropriate to do so. “Personally, I don’t ever intend to use amplification — it’s not my thing,” Roach says, “but that’s the Spoon Lady talking, not the president of the Buskers Collective.”

The divergent opinions on amplified busking as a stylistic choice speak to the greater issue at hand — namely, that buskers aren’t all cut from the same cloth.

“It’s easier to favor your way of doing things over the other guy’s way of doing things,” Fletcher says. “If it’s not traditional music — if it’s rock or something like that, then amplification’s probably going to be more a part of your style.”

Won’t you be my neighbor?

For surrounding brick-and-mortar businesses, relations with the buskers that often adorn their doorsteps is an individualized experience as well.

“I personally enjoy acoustic music, so I’m partial to busking without amplification,” says Peter Pollay, owner of Posana Cafe at Pack Square. “Everyone’s preference is different, and we need to balance that with the comfort of our customers, especially getting into the warmer months with the patio open.”

Some stores, like Mast General, don’t allow amplification on their property, says General Manager Carmen Cabrera. “We play music for our customers, so if it comes from both sides, it can be terrible!”

In public spaces, however, finding a solution that meets everyone’s needs can be difficult because of the organic nature of the busking community and lack of definition between a busker and a panhandler carrying an instrument, Cabrera notes. “I believe there will have to be some sort of permitting, just so we can get everyone on the same page and keep our [local] buskers’ and businesses’ needs at the forefront.”

Midnight Snack, who moved to Asheville in February 2015, already seems to be a staple of the downtown busking scene. They call their sound "a blend of old-school psychedelic rock and funk with new-school art rock," on their facebook page and say the band's mission is "to spread love and positivity with addictive recordings and powerful live performances."
LOVE THY NEIGHBOR: While personal opinions over issues like amplification remain split among buskers and the downtown business community, nearly all involved in downtown’s affairs agree that buskers are an asset to the city and believe that communication between buskers and surrounding businesses is a preferable alternative to strict regulations from the city. Photo by Kat McReynolds

While many businesses prefer to let buskers self-police rather than involve law enforcement, Roach admits that “buskers tend to not listen to other buskers.” And just as one bad apple can spoil the bunch, one rude busker can impact the entire busking community.

“Occasionally, you have business owners who like busking but don’t like certain buskers,” Fletcher says. He freely admits that he’s a “defender of busking,” not individual buskers.

Roach says she’s impressed by businesses’ willingness to engage the busking community and work together to resolve any issues that may arise.

This collaboration is essential, Fletcher notes, because buskers are part of a greater whole that makes downtown an attractive place for tourists and locals alike. “There’s a bunch of reasons why somebody chooses to spend their money downtown — street musicians are one of them. The local business owner’s also just one of them.”

Other voices, other rules

As Asheville considers what regulations need to be established in regard to busking downtown, officials are taking a close look at what other cities across the country have done.

Savannah, Ga., for instance, updated its rules around street performances in 2012. According to Savannah’s guidelines, buskers must obtain a permit from the city’s Citizen Office to perform on the sidewalks. Applicants undergo criminal background checks and a formal audition. Savannah has also established limits on where a performer can set up shop, when the busker can perform in certain areas and even how a busker is dressed.

For many buskers, Savannah’s increased restrictions have turned them off to the city, says Roach, adding that its once-vibrant busking scene has faded somewhat. “A lot of buskers kind of avoid it altogether. Eventually, you fill out enough forms and you feel like you’re getting a job.”

Comparatively, Asheville is ahead of the curve in understanding busking and its value, says Fletcher. “Nobody asks, ‘What’s busking?’ in Asheville. That tells me that we’ve done a good job in this town of educating people on what busking is and what busking isn’t.”

Much ado about nothing?

So is busking — particularly noisy or amplified busking — really an issue in Asheville? According to data provided by the Asheville Police Department, not really.

Of the 546 noise complaints received by APD between January 2014 and April 2016, only 45 involved street performers. “Any thriving city has noise problems,” Fletcher contends. “To me, the loudest thing I ever hear downtown is taxpayer-funded — that’s the firetrucks.”

Establishing a good working relationship with the Police Department also helps smooth over potential problems, says Roach. “[Police Chief] Tammy Hooper is super nice; I went and spoke with her, and she was asking all the right questions — I was really impressed.”

Another reason Asheville lacks the official regulations other cities impose on buskers, maintains Fletcher, might be because it hasn’t quite reached a point where it needs those kinds of rules. However, “if Asheville keeps on thriving,” he notes, “maybe in another five to 10 years, it’ll be time to have that conversation.”

Room for all

While community relations regarding busking may seem relatively hunky-dory in Asheville compared with other metropolitan areas, local performers say there are still issues to address.

As anyone who spends time downtown probably knows, a good busker on a good day tends to draw a crowd. Currently, the onus is on the busker to police crowds and make sure at least 6 feet of sidewalk is clear for passage.

“That’s really difficult,” says Fletcher. “Crowds aren’t aware this is an issue because they’re just part of a crowd. No busker wants to interrupt a song just to tell people to clear the sidewalk.”

But crowded sidewalks and pedestrians in the streets lead back to perhaps the biggest, most complex issue facing buskers, businesses and the city in general: a limit on available resources. “Silence is a resource, space on a sidewalk is a resource, and we’re reaching their limits,” Fletcher says.

Asheville Public Space Management Plan busking locations
LOCATION, LOCATION: As part of its Downtown Public Space Management Plan, the city is looking to expand the number and area of designated busking locations in an attempt to alleviate congestion at popular spots like the corner of College Street and Haywood St., Patton Ave. and Biltmore Ave., as well as establish buffer zones between busking acts in congested areas. City officials recently addressed this and other potential regulations at the May 23rd Public Safety Committee meeting. Map via City of Asheville Downtown Public Space Management Plan

Widening sidewalks, restricting vehicle access on certain streets and nurturing a more “pro-pedestrian” atmosphere, he contends, would not only benefit the busking community but create a more welcoming experience for visitors as well as cut down on noise and pollution.

“Just look at the massive surface area of downtown that’s devoted to cars and how little of it is devoted to people,” Fletcher notes. “I think that a real progressive look at transit issues actually plays into busking.”

Down the road

For the past year, the city has been devising a pilot program as a first step toward future guidelines on street performances and shared space.

The current proposal, available online at ashevillenc.gov, would designate and place certain guidelines and restrictions on high-traffic areas downtown. The city has also looked at ideas like allowing limited merchandise sales at designated performance areas and temporary weekend closures of Wall Street to vehicular traffic.

Based on community input, the city hopes to begin implementing the program later this spring. “We have looked at and are in the process of better regulating busking locations,” says City Councilman Cecil Bothwell, who serves as chair of the Public Safety Committee. “We’ve tried hard to gather input from all concerned parties in this process.”

Regardless of the form regulations take, the busking community hopes that the city will continue to recognize the value and viability buskers offer. “I know it’s difficult because busking is this weird, organic thing that doesn’t really have a description,” Roach says, “but it’s really, really important for folks to keep on playing.

“As flattering as it is to think that people flock to buskers, the truth is buskers flock to people,” she adds. “For us to be able to do what we do, we’ve got to be able to stay in the footprint. What makes Asheville so special is the entire downtown is essentially a village green — we don’t want to lose that.”

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About Max Hunt
Max Hunt grew up in South (New) Jersey and graduated from Warren Wilson College in 2011. History nerd; art geek; connoisseur of swimming holes, hot peppers, and plaid clothing. Follow me @J_MaxHunt

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15 thoughts on “Down on the corner: Asheville buskers, businesses chime in on sharing public space

  1. Jack

    They are technically earning income so are they going to be paying taxes on that income? They talk about widening sidewalks and making it more pro-pedestrian, but what about the lack of parking for people that work downtown as it is? I’m not aware of any permit or license that must be acquired in order to busk, but in order for vendors to set up on the sidewalks and in public areas they must pay for a license each year. I think instituting policies like Savannah would be a good way to regulate and officiate the entire process.

    Also, one of the “musicians” says, “A lot of buskers kind of avoid it altogether. Eventually, you fill out enough forms and you feel like you’re getting a job.” Um, so you want to earn a living but not to the degree that makes it seem like a “job?” Come on, that’s the reason you’re in the situation you find yourself in at this point. With an attitude like that, no wonder you’re on the sidewalk playing “music” for money.

    • Jill

      With an attitude like that it’s no wonder you have so many questions about it

      • Jack

        Would you elaborate on that? What attitude are you assuming I have?

        • Chris

          Well to be honest, you come off as a bit snobbish.

          You make the statement “Come on, that’s the reason you’re in the situation you find yourself in at this point. With an attitude like that, no wonder you’re on the sidewalk playing “music” for money.” as if buskers are all a bunch of miscreants who society deems unacceptable or unemployable, and therefore have no choice but to be a musician on the streets.

          The reality of the situation is that a lot of the buskers you meet are incredible musicians, who’ve worked a lot harder than most people to become proficient at their trade, and choose to live a life that reflects a passion for what they do.

          Anyway, just what I gathered as I was given this article to read by a friend. I don’t live in Asheville, and am an unbiased outsider, but I think maybe you could be a little less judgemental about people. Just my $.02.

  2. boatrocker

    Oh god, busking and music rears its ugly head again as an issue?
    Here are some handy bullet points for those who haven’t tried it themselves.

    -no, taxes are not paid- the same way musicians aren’t taxed for playing the bars, clubs and restaurants where you enjoy live music.
    Some festivals and city sanctioned events are a different story- I believe they use a 1099 form. But unless you can heft an instrument and do it better, it is a job- first you buy an instrument/s, then take years to learn them, then put up with tourists and locals who want “Rocky Top”.

    -permits are a sore point since the late 90’s here. 1997 saw the city requiring $15 dollar (good for 1 year) permits from every busker. The next year no permits were required. The City basically fleeced buskers and much like the current controversy over permits, the city will not disclose where the permit fees go.

    -“job” in quotes means as a musician you are working for someone else, not yourself. Tourists, take note, please ask folks at a farmer’s market, a roadside fruit stand or other DIY type gatherings why they don’t have a real “job”- you’ll get the same smart ass response.

    -“Music”in quotes- hmmmm- sorry you don’t like traditional NC Round Peak style songs being played. The nice man down the street can sell you a scalped Widespread Panic ticket if that is what you consider “music”. Or you could go hear a DJ press the play button. But oops, I’m dissing money making “Music” in town.

    -40 ft between buskers- about as enforceable as HB2 or voter fraud, another non issue.

    -Amplification- megaphones are legally considered amplification. Like the crazy preachers used on public property for Bele Chere and they were never regulated in any fashion. Personally I think amps are tacky as a busking device. Acoustic music also cuts down on noise complaints by whiny business owners who bill themselves as part of some sort of local ‘community’.

    -Selling CDs, merch, etc.- the only reason buskers are forbidden from doing this is that the city doesn’t get a cut. In organized crime, that is called a ‘shakedown’, though food trucks, farmers’ markets and vendors for city sanctioned festivals get away with it all the time.
    It has been a running joke for decades that Asheville loves the arts, until they have to pay for them.

    -Space- yes, I see the issue here- tourists having to get up close and personal with ughhhhh, the hired help. The hired help should be seen and not heard like children or slaves (aka the good ol days according to some posters). Tourists like the idea of live music, but not the actual practice. Just the same, travel light buskers- upright pianos and electric guitars with the full foot pedal mayhem might not be the right set up for guerilla music.

    -Busker’s Collective- while I like the idea, in practice nobody cares. Tourists and city officials see bad tattoos, dreads and judge you. Superficial appearances scare off tourists, which as we know is the single most important thing in town, ‘Collective’ also sets off red flags as in “unions”, you know, that protect workers’ rights. Asheville is after all a tourist trap, and not the set of “The Grapes of Wrath”.
    Tourists- if you ever bothered to read any Thomas Wolfe, did you ever wonder why he was so down on the bitchy, insular, gossipy culture of the nouveau riche of the Asheville? As was F. Scott Fitzgerald.

    -No buskers under the influence- hmmmmmm, if the local cops went after everyone on the sidewalk under the influence, downtown might be a lot less crowded. Just saying.

    • Yep

      wow, great post BR, but remember while you ‘believe’ there’s no voter fraud, the VoterIntegrityProject.org keeps uncovering all kinds of VF cases as they investigate across the country from humble NC beginnings! Prevention of voter fraud is the noble goal.
      Do you even realize what a shambles the NC voter rolls were in from decades of democrackkk SBOE chairmanship? – ie: Larry Leake -who has YET to apologize for such citizen voter abuse.

      • boatrocker

        I’m continually amazed at how you can twist any issue to suit your delusions and hijack a thread. Have you even ever busked? How many musical instruments can you wield?

        Sigh, that being said, can you provide clear, concise and verifiable numbers in terms of NC voting fraud? I thought Don Yelton’s TV interview pretty much nailed it when he accidentally told the truth about why voter fraud laws exist in NC.

        But back to busking.

  3. John

    I think that the solution is simple- buskers should have to ask the business that they are playing in front of if they can play there. If this happens during business hours and the business gives approval then okay. If the business is closed then busking should be closed. If a business has out door seating then you should have to have permission from that business to play within earshot of that business. That way, there is no real regulation, business owners and their customers are being heard, and the standard buskers who play regularly have the opportunity to develop a working relationship with the businesses that they would then be working with (sort of like “professional” courtesy). This would also help prevent a lot of other problems with panhandlers posing as buskers, transients, and others who are not contributing to Asheville and are impeding on our community. Just ask the business owner of the spot that you are wanting to play. I am sure that the spoon lady will be granted permission anywhere. I am also sure that the next time a drugged up drunken panhandler with a guitar like myself wants to play then the business owner can decide if I should be in front of their establishment playing whatever I want to.

    • boatrocker

      Well, that sounds nice in theory.
      However, public property near a business is just that, and no business owners need be asked if it is ok. If a business is closed, then what’s the problem busking near it? Also, ‘within earshot’ is subjective aka a business owner who doesn’t like buskers can claim to hear them all the way across town.

      I still don’t see how folks claim that panhandlers and transient homeless types are posing as buskers- either you can play well, or your lack of tips/listeners shows a need for practice.

      For goodness sakes, either A) leave buskers alone as in no regulation, or B) have agreed upon regulations, but then for working for the city, buskers then deserve a salary with benefits just like any other city employee.

      • boatrocker

        I forgot to add that blasting awful jam band music or frou frou Celtic music outside of a place of business via outdoor speakers in order to discourage buskers is awful, as restauranteers should not be in charge of determining what I hear while on public property. Once their music leaves their private property, well, it then matters to me. They tend to have awful taste in music and pander to what the tourists like. “And I hate the f’in Eagles, man”.

  4. DT

    Great piece. One thing I would add is taxes are paid like any other sole proprietorship or partnership…on the honor system. If you are really worried about the spare change getting dropped in their buckets maybe you should volunteer to help them get better gigs instead of degrading people who are doing as much as they can to simply survive. Savannah is a straight up military base…Wth does that have to do with Asheville Arts and Music??

    • boatrocker

      Strange post, leaning man. Did you fall asleep with your elbow on the keyboard or did you feel so bored by this thread that you dot dot dotted for nothing constructive to say? I apologize from the bottom of my heart for typing over 140 characters- I know your time is valuable.

      nxt tme ill jst txt or fcbk u. iz tht cool?

  5. John Haldane

    A different perspective here.

    I have art showing in the Kress Emporium and Green Sage Westgate I call “Uniquely Asheville” (http://uniquelyasheville.com). It is created from photos I take of buskers and others, including the drum circle, in Asheville. My art reflect the uniqueness of our town, the people here, the tourists, and the culture. The proposed changes to busking would negatively impact my business and, ironically, the businesses in buildings downtown. Busking is a huge draw and a major part of the downtown culture. If Asheville is turned into a “chain store” dominated and restricted town, people will eventually see the boarded up windows of the 1990s again. Why go downtown where parking is difficult if you can go to a mall or other “chain store” environment outside the city?

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